PANAMA CITY —The handshake happened. The bromance pic circled the globe. So now what?
That was the question on everyone's mind as the VII Summit of the Americas ended in Panama City on Saturday night and the presidents of the hemisphere climbed aboard their planes to go home. What comes next?
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Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez says the U.S. and Cuba are still in "phase one" of mending diplomatic relations, which were torn asunder more than half a century ago following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Now, the roadmap to full normalization of relations will be "long and difficult," Rodríguez says, but hopefully it leads to a kinder place where the U.S. will finally lift its archaic embargo against the island nation.
The Cuban foreign minister said President Raul Castro is "willing to maintain a respectful dialogue with the U.S. based on sovereign equality and reciprocity." He stressed that both countries need to work "to avoid situations that could affect the course that we want to maintain."
Though there's no clear timetable for the next set of bilateral talks — Rodríguez said only "soon—as soon as possible!"—the ball appears to be back in the U.S.' court following the two presidents 60-minute meeting in Panama City. The details of their historic face-to-face chat, which retreated behind closed doors after the famous handshake for the cameras, remain mostly private.
But here's a look at what we do know, and what needs to happen to keep the pot boiling:
Step 1: U.S. needs to remove Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. On Tuesday, the White House announced Obama's plans to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism
The next step is no mystery: the U.S. needs to take Cuba off its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. (Keep an eye on this space). The decision, which is generally assumed to be a done deal after the State Department issued its recommendations last week, was expected to come during the summit, but Obama pushed it off at the last moment, saying he wants to study it further. But don't expect any surprises here — the announcement should come soon.
Step 2: Reestablish banking services for the Cuban interest section in Washington.
Removing Cuba from the terrorist list will lead to step two: allowing financial services for a Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. That one-two combo, Rodríguez said, will help create the appropriate environment to move forward on even ground toward reestablishing full diplomatic relations and reopening embassies in both countries.
Step 3: Reopen embassies.
Once embassies are reopened, Cuba and the U.S. will be firmly on the road towards normalizing diplomatic relations. Then they can work to "consolidate regional cooperation and expand to other areas, such as fighting drugs, terrorism, security, rule of law, protection of environment, mitigation of climate change, and working together on health issues, including the prevention of pandemics such as Ebola," Rodríguez said.
Then things get complicated.
In many ways, this is the easy part. The U.S. and Cuba are just entering the honeymoon phase. The difficult work of making this new relationship sustainable begins once full diplomatic relations are re-established.
The question is: how long will it take the two governments to re-establish diplomatic ties and get to phase II? The answer, according to Rodríguez: ASAP. That's because the Cubans know their best chance for moving the chains is by playing a hurry-up offense while Obama is still in office. After that, it's anyone's guess how this thing will go.
The Cubans are aware of the ticking clock. And while Raul Castro is calling for patience, the communist government is also trying to nudge the process along while compañero Obama is still in the Casa Blanca.
Rodríguez even went as far as to urge the U.S. president to “use his broad executive powers will full determination to modify in a substantial way the practical implications of the blockade.”
In other words, the Cubans realize that U.S. Congress is an unreliable partner when it comes to normalizing bilateral relations. And Obama — like Obi-Wan Kenobi to Princess Leia — could be Cuba's only hope.